Monday, February 26, 2007

Hard to stay positive when faced with our inability to act
Feb. 23, 2007

Life on the front lines of a load of social issues these past three years has underlined for me the problems of a community that can’t come to grips with what’s going on in its streets.
It’s been something of a grim awakening.
Not the issues so much - 23 years in journalism had already introduced me to things like drug addiction, the sex trade and people living on the streets before I started working in the not-for-profit sector in 2004.
No, it’s my newfound knowledge - that we’re paralyzed with indecision about what to do about any of it - that has proved the most unsettling.
I sometimes fear I’m drifting into cynicism, which was certainly a risk even in my previous job as a journalist. On that front, I remain haunted by the ghost of the Victoria Health Project of the late 1980s.
I was a relatively new reporter in those days, and loved the strategy for its common sense. Tasked with finding a way to keep aging people out of hospital when they didn’t need to be there, the project figured it out with a variety of strategies ranging from helping seniors with their household chores to developing mobile psychiatric care.
Yet less than a decade later, I checked back into the story and found the whole concept behind the project had been erased from the collective memory, to the point that the original problems had returned and the identical strategies were being talked about as if they’d never been tried.
I eventually lost count of the number of good initiatives that suffered a similar fate. It turns out we have a discouraging habit of identifying a problem, attempting a solution, cutting the funding before change can really take root, then reidentifying the same problem a few years on and doing it all over again.
Nothing positive comes from cynicism, that’s the truth. But boy, it’s waiting for you once you start paying attention to how little actually gets done about our most pressing problems.
It’s probably been close to a decade since I walked through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and realized it had reached the point where reclamation seemed an impossible dream.
Vacant and boarded-up buildings lined the streets. The handful of businesses still struggling to stay open couldn’t lure customers into the area. Sick and desperate people manouevered the sidewalks like drugged-out, heartbreaking zombies.
I was struck at the time by how fortunate Victoria was to have escaped a similar fate. To see a wonderful city like Vancouver with such devastation at its core is tragic.
But that visit of mine was a long time ago, and Victoria has lost considerable ground in the intervening years. We are not yet the Downtown Eastside, but neither are we even close to the healthy city we used to be.
We have real problems. If we can’t fix them, they will grow into profound ones. That’s the unassailable lesson of the Downtown Eastside, and one that we ignore at our peril.
Like the Downtown Eastside, the reasons for Victoria’s urban problems start with the closing of B.C.’s big institutions in the 1980s, and carry on through global economic shifts, the virtual end of social housing, cheap and readily available street drugs, relentless cuts to all social supports, and an equally relentless refusal to believe any of this is happening.
Add in the tendency of one troubled family to beget many, and you get the picture.
But homelessness need not be a condition of our times. Drug addiction and mental illness can be dealt with. Yes, we’ve left things a little late, but a better world for all is still within our reach.
How will the work be done? As always, one person at a time.
Were we to just get on with it, there could be a happy ending for everybody. We already know what it takes, and in some cases are already doing it. We just need to do much, much more, for as long as it takes to reach the point where we can see the difference in our healthy, happy downtowns.
Research typically shows that setting people up with the help they need costs virtually the same - and sometimes much less - as leaving them to rattle around in their personal disasters. But even if it cost more, it’s surely worth our while to fix our urban malaise regardless.
Why can’t we act? Perhaps it has to do with a culture that holds people responsible for getting out from under their own messes. I get the importance of the principle, but what we’re seeing in our downtown is how life turns out for the folks who just can’t make that happen. How long are we prepared to stand on principle?
Once upon a time, I would have thought that a wealthy, privileged city would stop at nothing to save its beautiful core from becoming just another disturbing example of failed social policy and inaction.
On my good days, I still do.